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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Re: Characters
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0139.  Tuesday, 27 February 1996.

(1)     From:   John Drakakis <
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        Date:   Friday, 23 Feb 1996 12:34:53 GMT
        Subj:   RE: SHK 7.0136 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and

(2)     From:   Steve Sohmer <
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        Date:   Friday, 23 Feb 1996 09:04:50 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0136 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Drakakis <
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Date:           Friday, 23 Feb 1996 12:34:53 GMT
Subject: 7.0136 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and
Comment:        RE: SHK 7.0136 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and

I had thought that the "character" debate had really run itself into the
ground, and was determined to exercise as much restraint as I could, lest I
diorientate Steve Urkowitz more than is good for him. But Clark Bowlen's
commnet crystallizes what a number of other contributors to the debate have
edged towards: that there is clearly a confusion between reading a
Shakespearean text, and the demands that actors might place upon it.

Bowlen argues that "Playwrights must leave room for actors to create the
emotional life of the characters within themselves out of their own flesh and
feelings and imagination".  The most eloquent defence of this approach is, of
course John Russell Brown's Shakespeare's Plays in Performance (1966).  What
is, of course missing from assertions such as that of Bowlen that the actor
suppies the same kinds of information about a "character" that a novelist
supplies by other means, is any kind of statement about what it IS that is
supplied.  The tacit assumption seems to be that either "Shakespeare" is the
"character" behind his texts which it is the hermeneutic task of the critic to
discover, or it is "the actor" who provides the insight into "character" out of
her/his "own flesh and feelings and imagination".  In either case, whether the
resource for this is Shakespeare's "genius", or the actor's inner life, the
problem still remains: where do the "feelings and imagination" come from.
Bowlen speaks as though they have some kind of independent existence amenable
to empirical study.  My point is that like the concept of "character" they
emanate from a constellation of ideological assumptions.  Simply to assert that
a Shakespearean text (agumented by the actor's performance) is doing the same
as a novelist but by another means exacerbates the very essentialist knot that
I would like to see untied. That, of course, says nothing about the assumption
that a Shakespearean theatrical representation is the means by which we locate
some form of unchanging human nature, hence the actor can share with the
dramatist the task of unfolding to the spectator what everybody always knew
about the inner lives of individuals.  What Bowlen, and others seem unable or
unwilling to concede is that their very notion of "character" imposed on a
Shakespearean text produces an anachronism.

In teaching, as Hardy Cook himself pointed out, we often start from modern
conceptions such as "character" in our discussions of these plays: we name
characters, we discuss their motives etc.  But it seems to me that we would be
failing in our pedagogic duties if we just left the discussion there.  The more
we examine our own preconceptions about human behaviour the more we realize
that these theatrical representation that we seek to understand are quite
"foreign" to us.  How we domesticate that foreignness ought, in my view to be
the object of our study.

Cheers,
John Drakakis

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Steve Sohmer <
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Date:           Friday, 23 Feb 1996 09:04:50 -0500
Subject: 7.0136 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0136 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character

Clark Bowden is quite right about how much (or how little) one tells an
actor/actress about the character they're playing. An actress friend did a
perfectly luminous Portia in JC. After the play I asked her what she thought
Shakespeare meant when he wrote "It is not for your helath thus to commit Your
weak condition to the raw cold morning." She said, "Oh. Do you mean--do I think
I'm pregnant? No. No. That s.o.b. has a secret, and I'm going to pry it out of
him." One of the marvels of Shakespeare is that his plays can be done on this
level.

On the other hand, a scholar (I think) ought to be concerned with the question
of Portia's weak condition, as one needs to remember that Shakespeare believed
Brutus was an illegitimate bastard (which informs his line: "O ye gods, Render
me worthy of this *noble* wife"). One would get a very different reading of
Portia from an actress who was drilled to remember what it meant to be Cato's
daughter, what all of Rome knew had fallen out between Julius Caesar and her
father, what will happen to her brother in 5.4, that Brutus got along well with
JC until he married Portia, etc.

A performance of a play is one translation of a text merely, at a time and in a
place by these and these.

All the best,
Steve
 

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